City: Washington, DC Venue: Black Cat Date: 2003-09-25
It seems that any article about rock 'n roll two-pieces has to name check the White Stripes -- and now that I have, I can move on to more interesting, relevant acts. The two-piece is fast becoming a standard in indie rock circles, as more musicians start deconstructing not just the classic rock sound, but also the instrumentation. The excellent double bill of Hella and Quasi ably demonstrated the variations available in what might seem a limiting format.
Spencer Seim and Zach Hill of Hella take the straight and narrow route: guitar and drum instrumentals. Their math-rock switches between tricky time signatures show more restraint than most groups. There's rarely a second that doesn't seem pre-planned. Unlike definitely noise-centered bands such as Lightning Bolt or even the Japanese group the Ruins, Hella never even comes close to freaking out.
They may share a preference for note-by-note perfection with the metal aficionados of Orthrelm, but Seim's guitar-playing never stretches itself into the fingertapping of Mick Barr, whose work often has the intricacy of a Bach organ piece. Live, Seim stuck resolutely to a fairly standard guitar tone, heavy on distortion and high on its middle tones. It's unlikely that you'll leave with your hearing damaged, but where's the fun in that?
Hill's drumming is by far the most impressive factor in Hella's live show. There's barely a pause in the thrum of his double-bass, and this low rumble gives the entire affair a necessary buzz of excitement. Detractors of this new style of instrumental wankery might point out that almost every second sounds like a breakdown culled from a nonexistent hardcore epic, and usually the criticism would stand. With Hella, however, it's always apparent that there's not only a song structure but a tune, albeit a tricky, disjointed one that snakes its way up and down the fretboard.
Apart from being a two-piece, Quasi has very little in common with Hella. Janet Weiss -- known best as one-third of Sleater-Kinney -- may be a powerhouse behind the drumset, but Quasi is ultimately dedicated to matching Weiss' full, throaty voice with Sam Coomes' high, raspy croon. Whether Coomes employs his organ or guitar, their songs hang tightly onto a galloping, ragtime pace. Though the tunes might seem a little anachronistic, they always manage to be danceable, much more so than the keys-and-skins indiepop of the spouse vs. spouse face-off Mates of State. Yet all that warm, fuzzy organ can't help but end up sounding slightly cheesy once in awhile.
The duo format offers players an opportunity to better explore their style, to focus on a single quality of sound and take it as far as it can go. Sometimes things get stretched too thin. A terrible drummer can't offer much in the way of variety to your material after the cachet of playing with your ex-wife/rumored sister has worn off. Both Hella and Quasi boast sharp, talented players -- I'd seen few drummers play both keyboards and drums at the same time before Weiss -- that secure the chance that they can keep their band going.
But they also play well with others. After exhausting their own material during an encore, Quasi invited Hella back onstage to try something Weiss claimed was "unrehearsed" -- a full-blown cover of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs". The bands ripped into it wholeheartedly, with Weiss and Hill playing off each other without a hitch. Though it might have been a cover, it was the heaviest, brawniest moment of the night, a clear reminder that sometimes there can be strength in numbers.
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